words YASSMIN ABDEL-MAGIED photo IVAN WEISS
Writer and activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied knits truth to power in this essay taken from her latest collection Talking About a Revolution, finding peace, and joy, through hobbies.
It happened, like so many other things didn’t, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I had meandered through now-familiar lockdown phases: Instagramming attempts to recreate the fluffy wonder of Italian focaccia via an ailing oven and yeast long expired, purchasing a drill too powerful for my needs and installing shelves on every empty section of exposed brick wall space, binge-watching British TV shows, and wondering if I had a future as a barrister (I’d be quite good at getting paid to argue with strangers, I thought, and the wig is quite hijabi friendly…). As I settled into the isolation-induced stupor that may better be characterised as ‘low level depression’, I cast around for a distraction, an anchor. My eyes eventually lit on leftover yarn stuffed in a back corner of the TV cabinet, cheap lilac strands long forgotten. The fine pastime of knitting, the oldest artefacts of which date back to eleventh-century Egypt, called my name, and not for the first time.
At nine years of age, my best friend Hafsa and I whittled our lunchtimes away, utterly consumed by what we thought were quite cool crafts. Our backs pasted against the broiling corrugated walls of the grade five demountable building at the Islamic School of Brisbane, she embroidered, I knitted. That Brisbane enjoys a humid, subtropical climate rarely calling for anything heavier than a light jumper was no deterrent. With sweat running down my back, darkening the trouser waistband of my primary school uniform, I dreamed of the retail store I would launch, a cosy space bursting with niche, handmade woollens. Alas, as is the case with childhood obsessions, the phase ended before my vision was realised. I managed only to fashion a twenty centimetre by twenty centimetre blue woollen square, and swiftly endowed it with more utility than deserved by referring to it as a ‘dining table trivet’. Before the term was out, the whole exercise was duly abandoned for the next grand adventure: jewellery making. My brief childhood knitting phase was relegated to a funny anecdote at staid networking events for ‘young entrepreneurs’. It would be two decades before yarn came into my life again. This time it found me dispirited, crashing in a friend’s spare room in Melbourne, nervously awaiting the approval of my long-term United Kingdom visa. I had flown for a night and day back across the seas to submit my paperwork, the application costing me all my savings in lawyer fees with no guarantee I would be permitted to remain in Britain, the country I now called home. The abject uncertainty and stark lack of control over my future rendered me self-conscious, insecure. I spent days wandering around the suburban neighbourhood, craving a distraction; something to take me out of my head, something to do with my hands. A yarn shop, with bright beanies and pastel pullovers in the window, whispered sweet nothings as I walked past. The needles had no demands, the wool no questions about my future. Soothed by a sense of purpose, I picked up the needles once again.
A yarn shop, with bright beanies and pastel pullovers in the window, whispered sweet nothings as I walked past. The needles had no demands, the wool no questions about my future
Finally, I had something to do, knitting’s arbitrary goals the Ariadne’s thread through the darkness. My fingers, like a tongue retuning to a language it once knew, started clumsily, slow. I began humbly, returning to form with a simple square. Joined together along one edge with a hole for your thumb, the square transformed into a fingerless glove. It took three separate attempts for me to get the ribbing right and another before the colour blocking matched the online pattern, but soon, I was proud enough to show my creations off to the friend I was staying with. She was impressed. I pretended I cared less than I actually did. A week later, I attempted a beanie; this time with thicker needles and heavier yarn, the chunkiness of the knit obscuring the glaring errors in my craft. Coarse creations evolved into finer, more refined hats for babies, a design perfected by watching and re-watching YouTube videos. My fingers loosened, quickening with each day’s work. I knitted constantly, at the cafe, watching Netflix, waiting in queues. I reached for the needles like a child for their favourite soft toy: for comfort and safety. They were protection anytime tendrils of dread slithered their way into my thoughts. If I focused on what my hands were doing, I wouldn’t dwell on the uncontrollable. I knitted to save myself.
By the end of my third week, I had progressed to a single wobbly, yet rather wearable, adult-sized hat. It was the sort of thing that looked trendy if you were wealthy and concerning on me. When I dropped a photo of the beanie in the family WhatsApp group, my mother sweetly asked if I had enough money to get by. When my visa was approved just before the month’s end, it was to everyone’s relief. I couldn’t get on the plane back to London fast enough.
2020 marked the beginning of my ‘talent’ visa period, the year I was to hit my stride, the year to bear the fruits of all the seeds I had diligently planted. Life blushed with promise, and a smidgen more certainty than I had become accustomed to. Then, a global pandemic. COVID-19 made a farce out of all our plans. Events, book tours, the first theatre show I co-wrote: cancelled. The TV show I had been developing with a good friend: shelved. Collaboration and rehearsal spaces: shuttered. I was embarking on a career path in the arts just as the sector was facing an existential threat, and as my work evaporated, so did my appetite, motivation, creativity. The hours and days between government press conferences stretched, yawning precipitously. All of a sudden, there was t i m e. So much time.
I reached towards the familiar, the woolly thread that had kept me safe before. I found the needles and yarn brought back from Melbourne, tucked away untouched for months, and settled back into the security of the knit and purl. The click-clack of bamboo gently welcomed RSI back into my joints, and the hobby, quietly dormant at my side since I was a child, again offered me refuge. And so, when I sent a photo of my latest knobbly creation to a friend – a beanie of teal mohair looped in a simple cable knit – their reaction felt borderline repulsive.
“Oh wow! Amazing. Have you thought about selling them?” Have I thought about what? I recoiled, nauseated, my lip quivering. Why would I want to sell these? I’m giving them away to my friends for free! My reaction came as a surprise even to myself. My friend was, arguably, complimenting me. They noted that my craft had progressed, and the final ‘product’ had reached a high enough level that it would be commercially viable. Yet here I was feeling resentful? It was a downright un-millennial response.
Turning your side hustle into your main hustle is the hustler’s dream, and we twenty-first-century millennials without an inheritance, well, we’re the hustling generation. Grind and shine, baby! “The age of the side hustle is upon us,” proclaimed a Henley Business School white paper, reporting that small businesses and secondary jobs generate “£72 billion for the UK, or about 3.6 per cent of UK GDP”. In Australia, research has shown almost half (48 percent) of the working population either have a side hustle or are planning to start one.
Erin Griffith’s piece in the New York Times, ‘Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?’, comments on the ubiquity of this culture, where ambition is glorified “not as a means to an end, but a lifestyle”. “‘Rise and Grind’ is both the theme of a Nike ad campaign and the title of a book by a Shark Tank shark,” she writes. “Techies here [in San Francisco] have internalised the idea… that work is not something you do to get what you want; the work itself is all.”
It’s not just a millennial vice, either. The Open University found in 2017 that 95 percent of Gen Z-ers wanted to start their own business, and reportedly 72 percent of Gen Z-ers wanted to pursue a side hustle. In the words of Kennedy Hill, writing in Business Insider, her cohort are “overly attached to the idea that if there’s money to be made, it’s foolish to not make it”.
The irony, of course, is that those selling ‘hustle culture’ are often not the ones actually hustling. “The vast majority of people beating the drums of hustle-mania are not the people doing the actual work. They’re the managers, financiers and owners,” says Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson. As Alissa Quart reminds us, far from being the ‘moral good’ it is advertised as, “more often, people take on second or third side hustles because of wage stagnation or low pay at their full-time jobs”. Even the Henley Business School white paper acknowledges this bind. “Those who are underwhelmed and under-financed by their work, but have the appetite, if not the confidence, to go it all alone as an entrepreneur, will not let the chance slip,” said Professor Bernd Vogel, the founding director of the Henley Centre for Leadership.
The irony, of course, is that those selling ‘hustle culture’ are often not the ones actually hustling.
Here, Vogel is more on point than he realises. For we are not hustling because we necessarily want to, regardless of what the motivational posters might shout. Instead, these side hustles are “a way to make some desperately needed money because your current job isn’t paying enough to make ends meet”, as Alex Collinson writes.
It follows, then, in a culture accustomed to the making of money where possible in an effort to survive, my friend would suggest selling off my little creations. A creature of my environment, I had in fact caught myself suggesting the exact same to another mate who had recently gifted me a gorgeous handmade birthday card. I was not at all immune from the overworking, grab-every-opportunity, burn-out culture of my generation. By this point, I had made so many bloody beanies, in so many odd shapes and sizes, that I was starting to donate them to charity. Selling them wasn’t so audacious an idea. Why then, was my reaction so piqued?
I stewed, casting on a new ball of yarn with my needles, playing absent-mindedly with the loose end. Images flashed before my eyes as I hallucinated my potential future: fingers callused by needles, wrists aching from repetition, hair moulting from the stress of trying to fulfil orders fast enough. I saw myself spending endless hours attempting to market my small business on the Zuckerberg Trifecta (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) wondering if I was ever going to break even, worried about whether I would have enough time for my writing (“If I knit that much, will I be able to type?”). Was there no place for the committed amateur, no recognition that perhaps something might not be for the money? Neoliberalism got our hobbies, too?!
It felt as if there were no template for enjoying something purely for its own sake. Like we didn’t even know how to.
Author Wendy Brown explains how this is the result of the normalisation of neoliberal values that has been at work over the past forty years. “If you understand yourself as a bit of human capital, in a fully economic way,” she says on the US National Public Radio podcast Throughline, “it means you might approach your dating life or your educational life or your leisure time not so much as a profit-making undertaking but still as one to manage in economic terms and think about in economic metrics.
“This is basic Wall Street… that has gone into all of our souls.”
Her reflections cut close to the bone. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I had thought about “what success looks like” in knitting, or mulled on whether I was wasting my time perfecting a new row of cables. Perhaps this was why I only knitted when I could do nothing else, for it seemed too superfluous to spend time on when my head was clear, and I was fighting fit. To my horror, I realised I do quite often think of myself as a bit of human capital, to be maximised and optimised. I had put it down to being the child of migrants, brought up in a culture where we needed to make the most of the opportunities a new land offered. But though my parents taught me to make the most out of life, they have also often said I work too hard, frequently asking me to take a break, to rest, to spend time with family. I was, and perhaps still am, the only constant optimiser in the Abdel-Magied household, a thought that is mildly terrifying.
To my horror, I realised I do quite often think of myself as a bit of human capital, to be maximised and optimised.
I am not sure when I opted in to being a ‘bit of human capital’. I am not sure when my social media platforms went from being a fun place to hang out to a place where brands contact me for ‘collabs’ and random people send haranguing direct messages demanding I share a GoFundMe page. I cannot remember when my follower count grew to the point that I began to feel a mild expectation to ‘stay up to date’, ‘report back’, ‘keep people posted’. The entire ecosystem is set up for humans to be little bits of capital, and although we might make some money from it, the Zuckerbergs of the world make exponentially more. To be fair, I do not have an overly tortured relationship with social media: the majority of my work is unconnected to these platforms, and I have, by necessity, developed pretty solid boundaries. Being buried alive by social media hatred will force you to either construct impenetrable walls around your soul or quit completely. I did the former. It also helps that there is nothing I dislike more than being ‘expected’ to do something or be a certain way, my obstinacy an unexpected advantage in this respect.
But if I can admit that I, too, am affected by the murky neo-liberal sewage we find ourselves swimming in, why does any hint of monetising my hobby annoy me so much?
Maybe the resentment springs from the vestiges of my non-corrupted self, fighting back. It may be a sliver of my soul screeching, “Yassmin, no, save yourself! You found a hobby, protect it!” For there is so little left in my life that isn’t work! Almost every inch of my life has been excavated for content, for story, for ‘value’. “Oh, but you should have better boundaries, Yassmin,” I hear you say. May I remind you of why most people take up a side hustle? Because our work doesn’t pay us enough. Wages growth for Australian workers is among the worst in the industrialised world, as per David Peetz, writing for The Conversation. The United Kingdom’s Trades Union Congress reported in 2018 that real wages had been ‘in decline for seventeen years’, the worst period in modern British history. While wage growth has been complicated by COVID-19, it seems real wages are unlikely to rise. The only time in my life I had a clear demarcation between work and ‘life’ was when my actual job paid me enough, and that was on the oil rigs. I might be more ‘morally pure’ now, but I cannot pay the bills with my ethical righteousness. In the United Kingdom, inheritance, not work, is the main route to home ownership. Australia isn’t much better.
So, when folks speak of ‘choice’, of choosing not to be on social media platforms, not to be on the lookout for side hustles, not to be always working, there is a denial of our lived reality. For many, like myself, it is simply unaffordable. Add the precariousness of living on temporary visas, of being self-employed, of not having a safety net, and it is no wonder that I feel that to stop swimming is to die. Indeed, one must recognise this has been the lived reality of many of the working class and working poor for a long time. One could argue critiques of hustle culture are only heightened today as levels of inequality have begun to creep into the lives of university-educated middle classes.
Some of you might be reading this and thinking, “Well, I don’t see what the problem is, Yassmin. Is this not the life you chose?” Maybe. I did choose – or more accurately, fall into – a life outside the traditional realms of work, as many women (especially of the global majority) do. However, even in the face of unaffordability, neo-liberalism and the like, I remain certain that not everything should be monetised. I am, after all, not a bit of human capital. I am not a brand, not an enterprise with shareholders, not a factory that needs to be running at 99 percent uptime. I am a regular ol’ human who does love her work, but who, truthfully, adores doing other things too.
The fact of the matter is, I bloody love learning! I adore it, always have. Why else would a nine-year-old start knitting in grade five? Trust me, it had nothing to do with my level of social capital in the playground. In adulthood, learning has often been related to something which has ended up being commercialised, whether upskilling as an engineer, or learning to write. Thus, in a minute act of resistance, I have arrived at a new approach. Choosing to learn things for the hell of it.
My new hobbies are foolishly and thoroughly uncommercial. Learning how to wood-turn. Flower arranging. Bladesmithing. Equestrian. Some are more immediately useful, others so unconnected to what I do on a daily basis, I can’t imagine I will be utilising them in a work context anytime soon. Whether it’s sewing, water colouring, squash, I am going back to the dictionary definition of ‘hobby’: a “spare-time activity or pastime, etc., pursued for pleasure or recreation”. It means ensuring I have some spare time, as a start, but demands that I prioritise the pleasure, the recreation.
Sometimes, I share my progress on my social media platforms, bringing people along the step-by-step process of beating a piece of carbon steel into a blade, heat treating, quenching, sharpening. It’s not part of my ‘brand’, whatever my brand is by now (#MiddleGradeAuthor #MuslimActivist #ILookLikeAnEngineer). But I do share, and when I do, folks tell me they have been inspired to sign up for a similar class or have decided to return to that hobby they loved as a child. To inspire others to do fun things for the sake of it – what a treat! Not to be the best, nor to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the free market, but to take up a new skill or have a little adventure on the weekend because we can, because we’re human.
I don’t want to jealously guard everything I own, squeezing dollars out of every inch of my life. I want to give things away, share the love.
There are some activities that I may never be able to treat as a hobby. Writing, for example, has long become something that is ‘work’ rather than ‘recreation’. The thought of writing a book without an eye to publishing feels rather incomprehensible to me. Perhaps the pleasure of writing a book is in the sharing of the story, more connected to the oral tradition of storytelling than the solitary activity of putting sentences together. Or perhaps such a noble explanation cloaks a more capitalist reality: why write a book for free if I can find someone to pay me for the job? A hobby, thus, must be enjoyable and interesting, but in no way tied to my (potential) income. It is to allow me to revel in the pleasure of remaining an amateur, perhaps even scandalously mediocre. (That being said, I reserve the right to strive for low-stakes excellence!)
I don’t want to jealously guard everything I own, squeezing dollars out of every inch of my life. I want to give things away, share the love. I want to make enough money to not be worried, but not too much that it becomes a source of worry in itself. (The woes of owning a castle are truly uninteresting.) I want skills that will never find their way onto my LinkedIn profile but make the best dinner table conversations. I want to relearn the idea of a self decoupled from my value as a piece of human capital. I want to focus on my hobbies as activities that bring joy – not money – to my life, in a world that expects me to monetise everything I do. My defence of hobbies is a desire for self-worth outside the neoliberal framework. Indeed, it is a small, quiet, personal revolution.
So. Let’s knit, shall we?